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Carrier Oils

Because essential oils are generally too concentrated to be used neat on the skin, especially when wanting to perform massage, they are first blended with a carrier in order to dilute them and make them safer to use. This ‘carrier’ can take many forms from vegetable oils, creams, and ointments to clays and gels. However, to suggest that the only role carriers play is to ‘carry’ essential oils to the skin, seriously under-estimates their therapeutic potential, since many carriers have therapeutic properties in their own right, which can considerably extend the benefits of the overall aromatherapeutic application. Choosing the right carrier for the right job is an important part of being an aromatherapist.

The main ‘carrier’ used in massage are ‘fixed oils’ which are fixed by definition that they do not evaporate, unlike essential oils which are volatile oils and evaporate on contact with air. Fixed oils also do not have the strong aromas associated with essential oils and are sometimes known as ‘base oils’, since they form the base for essential oils when creating a blend. Primarily, in massage, they are used to provide the correct level of lubrication for an effective massage, and also to enable essential oils to be evenly distributed over the skin. Unfortunately, skin penetration by these oils is limited by the large size of molecules involved, but they are generally easy to use, depending on their viscosity.

Fixed oils used in aromatherapy are usually ‘vegetable oils’ which are mainly extracted from nuts and seeds and, as such, contain quantities of vitamins, minerals, triacylglycerols, phytosterols and fatty acids (amongst other things). As a result, each vegetable oil has its own very valid and unique therapeutic properties. Vegetable oils help to retain moisture in the uppermost layers of the skin, and enable the essential oils to come into close contact with the skin without vapourising into the air too quickly. Some of the smaller elements of vegetable oil, e.g. vitamins can also be absorbed by the top layers of the skin.

Some vegetable oils are suitable for use as the sole carrier (100%) of essential oils when performing a massage (e.g., sunflower seed, sweet almond, grapeseed, etc.). However, for others this is not always the case, due to a variety of factors:

  • Cost – some vegetable oils are considerably more expensive than others, making their sole use for a full body treatment prohibitive, e.g. borage, argan, sea buckthorn, etc.;
  • Viscosity – the more viscous an oil, the more difficult it is to work with as a massage medium because of its stickiness and lack of dermal penetration;
  • Smell – a very few vegetable oils have quite a noticeable aroma (not as strong as essential oils, but strong enough to affect the aroma of the overall blend, eg neem oil, olive oil, St John’s Wort, wheatgerm);
  • Colour – in the main, most vegetable oils have little colour, however, some of the more specialised oils, and particularly the macerated oils, do have strong colours which can stain clothing, e.g. calendula (orange), St John’s Wort (red), avocado (green).

As a result, certain vegetable oils are only used as 5-10% of the total blend.

In view of the above, fixed vegetable oils are also sometimes divided into three specific categories:

  • Basic Fixed oils – these can be used without dilution in other fixed oils, i.e. they are 100% of the carrier and generally consist of oils such as almond, peach kernel, apricot kernel and other oils that are generally pale in colour, not too viscous, or expensive and have very little smell.
  • Specialist Fixed oils – these oils are usually diluted in one or more of the basic fixed oils, since they are generally darker in colour, with a stronger aroma, more viscous and often more expensive, e.g. avocado, jojoba, wheat germ, etc.
  • Macerated oils – generally regarded as plant extracts because of the way they are produced.  These are generally used diluted in other fixed oils due to their strong colour and cost, although they can be applied undiluted where appropriate.  Macerated oils include: St Johns Wort, calendula, etc.

The quality of fixed oils is vital in order to obtain maximum therapeutic value – this, of course, also applies to essential oils.  However, when purchasing fixed oils it is preferable to buy ‘organic’, ‘cold-pressed’, ‘unrefined’ oils from a reputable supplier.

In the table below are samples of various fixed vegetable oils and their potential uses:



Pale Yellow or Green Oil

No Odour

Allows good penetration of the essential oil and is hypoallergenic

Sweet Almond

Cold pressed pale yellow

Mild odour

Suitable for all skin types.  Caution with nut allergies


Pale yellow colour

Very little odour, light viscosity

Good quality cold pressed oil can be as a general all round carrier oil

Peach Kernel

Clear to pale green oil, fine texture, good for facial blends

Mild odour

Dry, sensitive, mature skin; itching, eczema


Yellow/green to green/brown depending on age of oil. Quite viscous

No Odour

Excellent for dry, dehydrated and aging skin, eczema, sensitive skin

Apricot Kernel

Pale yellow, light texture

Mild odour

Very similar to peach kernel. Very good for delicate, mature, inflamed, dry, itchy skin; eczema


Strong orange/yellow coloured oil that will stain

Strong Odour

Helps with wound healing, varicose veins, haemorrhoids, chapped and cracked skin

Evening primrose

Clear to yellow with light texture

Strong Odour

Improves the condition of hair, skin and nails, mature, dry inflamed skin


Clear to yellow liquid wax which solidifies at lower temperatures

Very little odour

Similar to human sebum – helps to unblock pores.  Good for acne, oily skin with good penetration

Sesame Oil

Light yellow oil, quite viscous.

Nutty smell

Suitable for all skin types. Good for tight muscles, swollen joints, aging skin, arthritis/rheumatism

St John’s Wort

Deep red colour

Sweet Odour

Good for sore muscles, sprains, neuralgia, sciatica, cramps and muscle spasm